Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker may be transforming the European Commission President’s office and altering the institutional balance of power in Europe.
“Who do I call,” former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously quipped, “if I want to speak to Europe?” Following last week’s meeting with US President Donald Trump, Jean-Claude Juncker may finally have provided an answer.
The encounter between the European Commission president and the incumbent POTUS was remarkable in many ways. Leaving the process and outcome of the negotiations aside, the meeting may not only have important ramifications for the EU Commission presidency’s standing but could emerge as an important marker of institutional transformation and a changing balance of power in Brussels and perhaps even Europe more generally.
Let’s begin with the symbolism. The meeting between the two leaders was highly notable not because of who was present but who was absent; namely, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. In a previous meeting of the two EU leaders with the US president in May 2017, cameras caught Juncker telling Trump that there was “one too much,” along the lines: ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd’. It was therefore interesting to see that the EU only sent one of its presidents to Washington. Even more strikingly, it was not the one directly representing the member states but the one representing the EU’s executive institution.
This was certainly no accident. It can be credited to Juncker and his team for making the Commission’s presidency a more assertive and influential office. Indeed, it was just recently at the G7 summit—where Trump repeatedly berated President Macron and Chancellor Merkel—that Trump allegedly told Juncker: “You’re a killer, I respect that”. With the sort of strategic and unapologetic political acumen that Juncker displays, it was therefore no coincidence that Europe sent its enigmatic and, at times, controversial Commission president ‘to make a deal’.
Flattering and respect
Then there was the courteous flattering and respect that Trump showed Juncker in the two appearances before the press. Unlike previous visits where the EU Commission president may have been greeted for a courtesy photo-op, this was visibly a meeting of two leaders treating and facing each other on par. This may partly be the result of Trump’s underwhelming knowledge of foreign policy and the institutional complexity of post-World War II international relations but the effect was striking nonetheless. A Commission president who, in Europe, is generally seen as a stooge of the powerful member states was all of a sudden rhetorically transformed into a world leader in his own right by the most powerful office-holder in the world.
Even so, it would be difficult to argue that this is not a continuation of a trajectory where, from the beginning of his tenure, Juncker has insisted that he would oversee a ‘political commission’. The Juncker presidency has managed an agenda that, among other achievements, offered a white paper for the future of the EU, established an economic stimulus program for SMEs (i.e. the Juncker Plan), brought back Greece’s financial system from the brink of collapse, appears to be getting its way on Brexit, and even saw the establishment of a social pillar, an area that was not previously seen as a core EU competency.
Stronger president's office
The call for combining the Council and Commission presidencies during his State of the European Union address is only a further testament to the apparent objective of institutionalising a stronger president’s office. Furthermore, in contrast to the previous leadership, there is now a clear hierarchy between the Commission presidency and the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), currently led by High Representative Federica Mogherini.
Since the Lisbon Treaty, the member states have jealously guarded influence over EU foreign policy by institutionally establishing the EEAS, the EU’s effective equivalent to a foreign ministry, separate from the rest of its ‘government’ (i.e. the Commission). This led to significant inter-institutional turf wars and rivalries.
However, the world’s sole superstate’s executive arm has now, for the first time, met at eye-level with a world-leading, albeit declining, superpower.
It thus appears that the Juncker presidency is contributing to the eroding primacy of the nation-state in world affairs. Indeed, the relatively long period of silence from Paris and Berlin following last week’s meeting with Trump spoke volumes to this effect.
Operating at the margins
From the vantage of institutional theory, one could say that Juncker and his team have mastered the art of navigating the informal institutions of politics and governance, while exploiting opportunities by operating at the margins of extant norms and rules. They are making informal structures that exist in parallel and complementary to the formal legal institutions of the European Union and, more broadly, global governance work in their favour. They are effecting change absent treaty change.
The question that remains is whether these de facto, rather than de jure, structural changes can be perpetuated beyond the incumbent office holder of the Commission presidency or whether these are only momentary lapses subject to rectification once the path dependence of designed compartmentalisation of the Lisbon Treaty sets in. Only time will reveal whether the latter, under the guise of the member states, will resist a perpetually-lived, as opposed to personally-lived, strong president of the Commission, or perhaps even the European Union. Yet, for now, world leaders better call Jean-Claude!
Dr Christopher Marc Lilyblad is Visiting Research Fellow at the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford and a strategy consultant. His research focuses on institutional development and governance in world politics.